Amid a grim week in Baghdad, and a chaotic one in London, fresh scrutiny is set to fall on the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago – and how that decision was made – after the release of an exhaustive new British government report.
The Iraqi capital is still counting its dead after a horrifying truck bombing on Sunday that killed at least 220 people. The suicide attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State, served as a reminder of just how far away stability remains in the country.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has been reeling since the June 23 referendum that saw a population no longer willing to listen to its political leaders vote to leave the European Union. The chaos that has followed has seen a spate of high-profile resignations, and questions about whether the U.K. can hold together as it moves to carry out the electorate's call for a Brexit.
The report of the Iraq Inquiry Committee, better known as the Chilcot Inquiry after John Chilcot, the head of the investigation, won't resolve either country's woes. It may instead deepen the infighting splitting the U.K.'s opposition Labour Party, at a time when the ruling Conservatives are in the midst of their own battle to choose a successor to the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron.
But the report should shed needed light onto how the controversial decisions of 2003 – which helped set in motion many of the troubles of today – were made.
Even Canada has been dragged into the swirling aftermath, deploying special-forces troops to aid Kurdish forces in the north of Iraq in their fight against IS. One Canadian soldier was killed last year as part of that mission.
Seven years in the making, and said to be four times the length of War and Peace, the Chilcot report is expected to deliver a devastating verdict on the initial march to war. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair – keen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States as President George W. Bush launched "Operation Iraqi Freedom" – told the U.K.'s House of Commons that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was actively trying to develop nuclear weapons, and already had a chemical and biological arsenal that he could deploy within 45 minutes.
The invasion itself proved a relatively easy matter, with Mr. Hussein's forces collapsing before the combined U.S.-British onslaught. But the stated casus belli, the weapons of mass destruction, were never found. And the occupation of Iraq was a disaster that's still unfolding.
Some 4,500 U.S. troops and 179 British soldiers were killed in the fighting. The Iraqi death toll is estimated to be upwards of 250,000, according to iraqbodycount.org (other estimates, however, put the figure much higher). The country has fractured into warring parts, and the Islamic State – a successor organization to militant groups originally formed to fight the U.S.-British occupation – now controls large parts of both Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The endless bloodshed helped drive last summer's refugee crisis, which saw hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians travel by foot and boat in hopes of finding asylum in Europe.
To the anger of some relatives of British soldiers who died in Iraq, the Chilcot Inquiry was not tasked with assigning blame for what happened, only with identifying the lessons from an episode now considered the U.K.'s worst foreign-policy debacle since the 1956 Suez Crisis. The focus will be on how the faulty intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was gathered, and how it was presented in the so-called "dodgy dossier" that was central to the Blair government's argument for war.
Part of the reason the investigation, originally expected to last one year, took so long was the need to review some 150,000 documents, and hear from more than 150 witnesses, including Mr. Blair, who memorably told the inquiry during his first testimony in 2010 that he took "responsibility, but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein," prompting audible groans from some of those in attendance.
At his second appearance in 2011, Mr. Blair clarified that he did "regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life" that stemmed from his decision to go to war.
Mr. Blair's chancellor and successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown – who ordered the inquiry in 2009 – also testified before the inquiry, as did Richard Dearlove, the former head of the MI-6 intelligence service, and John Scarlett, who headed the Joint Intelligence Committee that prepared the controversial dossier with input from Alastair Campbell, Mr. Blair's director of communications. Mr. Campbell also testified.
The five-member Chilcot panel (one of whom, historian Martin Gilbert, died last year) was also forced to wage a prolonged battle to access the correspondence between Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush in the run-up to the invasion. Twenty-nine "notes" sent by the British leader to his American counterpart were eventually obtained by the inquiry, and the redacted bits of those that will be published tomorrow are sure to be among the most scoured and interpreted bits of evidence.
The Chilcot report, while exhaustive, seems unlikely to satisfy those hoping to see politicians punished for the decision to go to war.
"We are not a court or a judge and jury," Mr. Chilcot said in an interview with U.K. broadcasters on Tuesday. The main lesson contained in the report's findings was that it should not be possible "to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgment being applied to it," he said.
"So much has been said about Tony Blair and this decision, none of it is going to be much of a surprise," predicted Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. "Those who disliked [the Iraq war] decision, and who disagreed with [Mr. Blair] at the time of this decision, are not going to change their minds. I suspect he won't either."
The report could, however, add a complicated new layer to the infighting in Mr. Blair's Labour Party, where a majority of MPs are in the midst of trying to push out their controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn over his uninspiring effort to mobilize the Remain vote during last month's referendum over membership in the EU.
Many of those opposed to Mr. Corbyn are from the centrist, Blairite wing of Labour, and Prof. Travers said the leftist Mr. Corbyn – who vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq and regularly spoke at anti-war gatherings – could be bolstered by a public reminder of what many in Britain see as the defining error made by Mr. Blair and his allies.